David McCullough’s vivid description of cadaver disections in Paris

by Mr. Sheehy

In Paris there was not the least prejudice against dissections. Even mortally ill patients in the hospitals, “aware of their fate,” and knowing that two-thirds of the dead were carried off to the dissecting rooms, did not seem to mind. Beyond the hospitals, due in large part to the ravages of disease and poverty, cadavers were readily available and cheap—about 6 francs for an adult, or $2.50, and still less for a child.

John Sanderson, after taking a room in the Latin Quarter, where he was “living a kind of student’s life” near the hospitals, described seeing carts “arrive and dump a dozen or so of naked men and women, as you do a cord of wood upon the pavement,” these to be distributed to the dissecting rooms.

Delivery time for corpses at the Amphitheatre d’Anatomie, on the rue d’Orleans near the Hopital de la Pitie, was at noon. Wendell Holmes wrote of how he and a Swiss student split the cost of their “subject” and by evening had “cut him into inch pieces.” Thus could all parts of the human body—nerves, muscles, organs, blood vessels, and bones—be studied, and this, Holmes stressed, could hardly be done anywhere in the world but in Paris.

The size of the stone-floored amphitheater was such that 600 students could practice operations at the same time. The stench in the thick air was horrific. The visiting Philadelphia surgeon Augustus Gardner left a vivid description of the scene.

Here the assiduous student may be seen with his soiled blouse and his head bedecked with a fantastic cap. In one hand he holds a scalpel, in the other a treatise on anatomy. He carries in his mouth a cigar whose intoxicating fumes, so hurtful on most occasions, render him insensible to the smell of twenty bodies decomposing, putrefying around him… . Here, too, is the learned professor, who thus prepares himself for a difficult operation by refreshing his anatomy; and thus rehearses his part in the tragedy to be acted on the morrow. The blood and pieces of flesh upon the floor he regards as the sculptor does the fragments of marble lying round the unfinished statue.

Disposal of the discarded pieces was managed by feeding them to dogs kept in cages outside. In summer, dissecting was suspended, because in the heat the bodies decomposed too rapidly.

For all that was so unpleasant about work at the dissecting tables—the stench, the smoke—it was far better, every student came to appreciate, that they practice on the dead than on the living. (116-117)

McCullough, David. The Greater Journey. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011.

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